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Asian leaders hurl populist policy firepower ahead of elections

Incumbents in Thailand, Indonesia and India seek support with cash handouts

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, center, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi all face election tests in 2019.   © Reuters

JAKARTA/BANGKOK/NEW DELHI -- Asia's political calendar will be busy in 2019, with India and Indonesia, two of the region's largest democracies, as well as Thailand, heading to the polls. And incumbent leaders, struggling to garner support, are rolling out the pork barrels. 

Signs that handouts could become the go-to strategy for the upcoming elections were already evident in August, when Indonesian President Joko Widodo unveiled his draft budget for 2019. The plan, which has since been approved by parliament, promises to double spending on a program aimed at alleviating poverty. 

The Family Hope Program offers a basic payment of 1.89 million rupiah ($130) a year to eligible poor families. Some 10 million households were covered under the program in 2018. 

The program became headline news in the archipelago in December, when Widodo reiterated his support for the program at a meeting of administrators at the presidential palace. The president said the scheme's budget for 2019 will rise to 34 trillion rupiah, from 18 trillion rupiah this year, and that the program will be expanded to 15.6 million households by 2020. 

"This is a manifestation of the state's [concern] to its people. Don't just talk about infrastructure," Widodo said at the meeting, attempting to head off criticism that he has emphasized building infrastructure over people's livelihoods during his four years as president. "This 34 trillion [rupiah is] big money. I've never seen such big money. And if this year and the year before a family got 1.89 million rupiah, next year they will get twice that," he added. 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, appears with his running mate in the 2019 presidential election, Ma'ruf Amin, at a rally in August. (Photo by Shotaro Tani)

Widodo's renewed emphasis on the program is a statement to his supporters, primarily those on the lower rungs of the income ladder, that he can deliver immediate benefits if they back him in April's presidential election.

The opposition vice presidential candidate, Sangiaga Uno, a former deputy governor of Jakarta and self-made billionaire, has been taking on Widodo on his own turf, visiting markets in rural areas and accusing the government of failing to deal with rising prices for staple foods.

Uno's claims do not appear to be backed up by official data: Inflation has been stable at around 3%, lower than the middle of the central bank's target range. But he has managed to charm some Widodo supporters, especially housewives. 

A December survey by pollster LSI Denny JA showed Widodo and his vice presidential candidate, Ma'ruf Amin, with a 54.2% approval rate, while the opposition camp of Prabowo Subianto, a former army general, and Uno, stood at 30.6%. The gap was widest in October, but has narrowed since. 

The Indonesian president is not the only Asian leader worried about waning support.

In Thailand, the junta led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has introduced a series of populist measures ahead of a long-delayed general election scheduled for Feb. 24. The moves are designed to pull votes away from Pheu Thai Party, which is linked to two deposed prime ministers, Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, and deliver them to the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks at Government House in Bangkok on Dec. 11 as Miss Universe contestants look on.   © Reuters

The handouts are worth at least 50 billion baht ($1.5 billion). They include a "New Year's gift" of 500 baht to 14.5 million Thais, one-fifth of the population, who hold a welfare card. The welfare program was put into place by the junta last year to support individuals who make less than 100,000 baht a year. The junta also plans to give away mobile phone SIM cards to registered low-income earners, giving them free internet access.

"The pro-junta [politicians] are in a rush, because they haven't secured enough support for the coming election," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. A sizable portion of low income earners are in north and northeast Thailand, where the Pheu Thai is strong.

The junta took power in a 2014 coup, ousting then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Its goal was ostensibly to re-establish law and order in a country where political corruption had become endemic. The populist steps taken by the Pheu Thai were the primary source of that corruption, coup leaders said. But to bolster their support, the junta is now engaged in vote-buying of its own.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also expected to open the spending taps to win over voters. The world's largest democracy will head to the polls sometime by May, and observers believe the government will step up support for farmers in its interim budget to be presented in February.

Having failed to effectively address the plight of debt-laden farmers demanding loan waivers and higher prices for their crops, Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party lost power to the main opposition Indian National Congress in three Hindi-speaking heartland states -- Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh -- in regional polls held between Nov. 12 and Dec. 7. Voters in these key states tilted in Congress' favor, mainly because of its promise to forgive farmers' debts if it comes to power.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a campaign rally ahead of the Karnataka state assembly elections in Bangalore on May 8.   © Reuters

"The [Modi] government will be competitive now, and is likely to extend direct subsidies to farmers" in the run-up to the general elections, said Sandip Das, an agriculture expert and senior consultant at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

Das said the subsidies could be similar to a program in the southern state of Telangana, where the local government gives farmers payments of 4,000 rupees ($55.80) per acre before every cropping season to cover the cost of seeds, fertilizer and other items. "Some farm loan waivers may also be promised, though I'm not sure if they will be implemented at all," he added.

Should Modi introduce such payments, it will mean further bending to the populist breeze. He has already introduced measures that have been criticized as vote-buying.

In September, Modi launched the world's largest government-funded health insurance program, covering 500 million poor citizens, or about 40% of India's population of over 1.25 billion. Critics say the rollout of the scheme, just months ahead of elections, was timed to court voters.

The scheme provides free medical treatment of up to 500,000 rupees annually to families that qualify. The central government will pick up 60% of the bill, with state governments shouldering 40%.

"Modicare," as the program is popularly known, was first presented in February as part of an annual budget that also announced higher procurement prices for farm products, another move toward populism.

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